by Cait Lore on Dec 3, 2020

Making a movie about Markie Wenzel’s life was not something Matt Kliegman planned to do. But something special brought the subject and filmmaker together in 2007. Seeing her walk to her station, checking bags in the airport terminal, stopped Kliegman in his tracks. He felt a connection. Call it an artist’s intuition, perhaps, or maybe it was something more banal, like a penchant for networking. Whatever this feeling was, Kliegman decided to follow it, all the way to a 7-foot-tall TSA agent at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport, all the way to Markie.

At the time, Kliegman lived and worked in New York, performing DJ sets to make ends meet and collaborating on projects with other artists. When he gave Markie his business card, he told her he thought they could tell stories together. Little did he know that Markie was already developing her own stories. Several volumes of a personal biography had been written on notepads and whispered into a tape recorder. One day, she hoped, her words would reach her family, and maybe they would then finally be ready to accept her for who she is.

When you’re 7 feet tall and 400 pounds, people tend to notice you. But Markie Wenzel has always been comfortable engaging a crowd. As a teenager, she excelled at sports. And for most of her adult life, Markie was a fundamentalist preacher, youth-group leader, and self-described “spiritual giant” for her community. But here’s the thing: Markie was assigned male at birth. Deciding to come out at the age of 46 resulted in both divorce and estrangement from her children. It also led to her dismissal as a fundamentalist preacher and ostracization from her community.

Shot and edited over 10 years, Kliegman’s Markie in Milwaukee opens at a pivotal moment in Markie’s life. Just before her gender-reassignment surgery, Markie starts to question her trajectory. Living true to her identity has come at a high price. Her children have grown up, graduated college, and started their own families; Markie has grandchildren she has not met. She struggles to pass as female. And, as a fundamentalist Christian, connecting to the LGBTQ community hasn’t been easy. Life could be less lonely, she thinks, if she presents as Mark. And so Markie in Milwaukee begins at the midpoint, as Markie attempts to reverse her transition.

The success of Kliegman’s film is largely — if not entirely — due to his subject’s resources. Her memoirs, audio recordings, and childhood photos are used to their full effect, as Markie brings viewers into her world. However, her contribution extends far beyond the film’s raw materials. As it turns out, Markie is quite a screen presence. She speaks off the cuff and from the heart, her style grounded in plain language. Despite her unhurried cadence, one gets the feeling that her mind is always moving, further and further inward, until she lands on her own personal truth.

It’s this self-awareness, and that knack for public speaking, that gives her a command over the film. Kliegman, however, struggles to leave his mark. Some critics have referred to Markie in Milwaukee as a vérité production. Leaving it at that, perhaps, is a little too generous. On a technical level, Markie in Milwaukee is occasionally out of focus and poorly framed. Having whittled a decade of footage into something fluid is no easy feat; Kliegman’s patience is not to be doubted. However, his formal style brings little insight into his subject’s life, and he lacks his subject’s drive to chase the difficult questions. What is Kliegman, the filmmaker, about? And what does he make of Markie? Audiences won’t find any answers here.

An honest portrait of a trans person at midlife, Markie dares to watch its protagonist wrestle with life at the margins of society. But is Markie in Milwaukee for trans audiences? No, probably not. In truth, those who are triggered by transphobia will likely find the film to be a highly distressing experience. But for the real-life Markie, this project is a radical exercise in validation — a healing process. And for families of trans people, Markie is a must-see, showing the vital role that community plays in the pursuit of self-acceptance.

Rating: B

Markie in Milwaukee is now available to rent online from Icarus Films. Purchase a virtual ticket from Dec. 4 - 10 and the proceeds will support the Webster University Film Series.